Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II.


Simple inhabitants of Amates.—Lodging at Tepecoaquilco.—Troops proceeding to the coast.—Spotted Indians of Istola.


It was quite dark when we left the courtyard in the morning of Sunday the 24th. The road now became more mountainous. We afterwards passed through a fine park-like country, and I broke my fast about 7 o'clock, by plucking, as I rode along, some wild cherries from a tree which had exactly the appearance of an oak, but without a single leaf. We soon came up to a small hamlet, consisting of about half a dozen cottages; but the only inhabitant we saw was a pretty young girl about sixteen, who was returning from mass: we gained admittance at one of the houses by knocking lustily at the door; it was the public-house of the place. The sole liquor, however, which it afforded was some coarse brandy, of which I drank a little mixed with water, for I was faint and fatigued, but my companion, Don Mateo, assured me that that was a very unwholesome beverage: it ought always, he said, to be drunk neat, a practice which, although a very sober man, he always adopted. The same prejudice prevails universally through these countries, even amongst the ladies; but, with all their recommendation, it was a practice I never could, even out of compliment to them, follow, since the liquor in question is a complete alcohol. About midday we reached the village of los Amates; and the heat being considerable, we stopped to take some nourishment. Whilst planning something for this purpose, the husband of our hostess, a good looking Indian woman of about eighteen, with three or four pretty children, had returned home with a kid which he had just shot. I immediately purchased the animal for a dollar, which was three times as much as he would probably have parted with it for, and dined off of one of the haunches, which was indifferently roasted. After our meal, our saddle-rugs being spread on the floor, we took our siesta: but my attention was chiefly occupied by the proceedings of this more than patriarchal establishment: now and then a child came running in to get a drink of water, to which it would help itself by a small wooden bowl composed of the rind of a gourd finely painted with red, with silver and gilt ornaments, dipping it into a coarse earthen jar, and replacing the gourd on the top so as to exclude the dust and air. The poultry were busily employed in picking up the crumbs of the repast, and a sturdy old sow was disputing a bone with one of our sportsman's mongrels, who boldly, though not so effectually, asserted his privileges and title to the offals of the chase. I gave the two eldest children, who had now been desperately employed in ridding me from the annoyance of these animals, a dollar a-piece. I soon found that my bounty was lavish and inconsiderate: in a few minutes, children were seen pouring out from all the huts in the village, accompanied by their parents, their grandfathers and grandmothers: some of them were extremely old and feeble, and I was forced to listen to a long series of all the ills "which human flesh is heir to."

The poor Indians of this country think that every Englishman is, ex-officio, a physician. I began to conceive myself one of those who has attached to his pretensions "advice to the poor gratis, on Sundays:" but I could not practise even without greater liberality than this, for my patients not only did not pay any fees, but expected to receive them for the trouble they had subjected themselves to in taking my advice. A dollar or two changed into half rials, which reversed the proverb, by throwing bad money after good, saved my credit and my patience. The latter was nearly exhausted, but the former continued to increase so rapidly that as I mounted my horse and walked him off slowly on my way, I beheld faces looking anxious at my departure, and heard half suppressed sighs of gratitude and disappointment, which assured me how welcome my longer stay would have been amongst them. The Indian who sold me the venison was particularly desirous of a little gunpowder: not having more with me than my exigencies might require, and the escort having left me this morning, I could only afford to give him a few charges: he seemed to calculate each charge at the price of a deer: I concluded, therefore, that he was a probably sure shot.

I arrived this evening at the respectable town of Tepecoaquilco, and delivered a letter of introduction to the Alcalde, by name Don Manuel Arazave: he keeps the largest shop, and has one of the best houses in the town, retailing all kinds of dry goods. My companion, Don Mateo, informed me that he had procured a lodging, and I therefore refused to accept the offer made me by Don Manuel of sleeping under his roof. I was very much tired and exhausted as I sat in the market-place, watching the people parading about in their holiday cloaths on this beautiful but sultry evening. They came to ask me what I would have for supper: I said, half pettishly, "oh there is nothing that I can find here that I should like, unless it were a pailful of ice." "Alli está Señor," There it is, Sir, was the reply, and a man was pointed out to me who was selling it at the corner of the market-place. Struck with the singularity of a circumstance so unexpected, I rose to convince myself of the fact: it was pretty correct: the man's pail was more than half full, but, from the incessant demands upon it, it seemed likely to be immediately exhausted: there was no time to be lost: the bargain seemed about to be dissolved before it was struck. I made him an offer for the remainder: it was purchased for seven rials and a half, and carried off to my lodgings, to the amusement of those who had made good their purchases, and the disappointment of other thirsty expectants, who, however, had the discretion or good humour to join in the laugh.

My lodging was of a very sorry nature: a gate, similar to those which we have in our English farm-yards admitted us into a paddock on the side of a lane, a little out of the town: the house consisted of a dead wall against the road side, with the front and one of the sides completely open, without any wall, except one of about three feet high. It was, in fact, a shed, and admirably adapted for a cow-house, being shaded from the south, and having a rich pasture in front. We ate heartily of the ice, and had nothing to repent of, but that we had not eaten it all; for the little we had kept for a bonne bouche in the morning, notwithstanding all the precautions that could be taken, we discovered had resolved itself into its liquid state.

Monday, 25th. Set off at about seven o'clock. We passed some infantry, about 100 men, who were proceeding to the garrisons on the coast. When within twelve miles of Istola, they came up with us whilst we were preparing our breakfast. The mules had been unloaded, and the baggage was lying in disorder before the small inn at which we had taken up our quarters. Don Mateo, who knew the necessity of precaution from the serious loss he had so unaccountably sustained, was ordering our peons to dispose the things in a safer and more compact form, when the officer commanding the troops, coming up and over-hearing his remarks, which he considered directed against his men, immediately repelled the attack with the bitterest epithets, accompanied with the most threatening gestures. The noise of words continued; the officer had drawn his sword, when Don Mateo stepped up to him, and muttering two or three short sentences in his ear, in which I could distinguish the words "Su Majestad Britanica," the former became suddenly pacified, and, approaching me respectfully, said, he was far from intending any affront to myself or my companion; only he would never allow the character of his soldiers to be called in question, who, he added, were as honest fellows as any to be found in Mexico. I told him I was quite of that opinion myself, and Don Mateo coming up, and asserting his belief of the fact, we were all agreed, and became such good friends that I told Don Mateo to ask him to join us at breakfast, which the officer declined.

I was surprised to see my companion, shortly after, very busy amongst the muleteers, who were again harnessing the poor animals before they had scarcely time to refresh themselves. My horse was ready, and Don Mateo nodding to me to mount, I proceeded into the open road, on which the sun was now shining with all the dazzling and oppressive splendour of its midday career. About four miles on, there stood, in the centre of our path, a magnificent specimen of vegetation, of which I could not learn the name, but very similar to the English oak, and as large as almost any specimen of it to be met with. "We must take our siesta here," said Don Mateo, and, contrary to my inclination, our saddle-cloths being disposed on the ground, we laid ourselves down to rest under this natural canopy. Don Mateo's siesta, which he could take in general, with a precision, as to length and duration, that might regulate the sun, but by which it was, in fact, influenced, seemed to have slept faster than usual. We remounted in pursuit of our baggage, which he said he had ordered on, as we might overtake it. I remarked that he was constantly looking behind him, although he was pressing his horse forward: he was desirous to get to his baggage, and from, the soldiers, being under the twofold influence of attraction and repulsion, like a needle placed between the opposite poles of two magnets.

Istola is a real inland Indian town: the alcalde and all the authorities are purely of this origin: their faces and bodies are covered with large black spots, which are catching either by contact or by the use of their furniture or implements. Having high cheek bones and small black eyes, they remind you of the tattooed natives of the South Sea islands. The chief authority came out to welcome me; he was dressed in blue cotton trowsers, much the worse for wear, and a coloured cotton jacket, and bore in his hand his baton of office. A bird-cage kind of house, fifteen feet by six, divided into two apartments by wicker work, was provided for my accommodation; but, having learnt the danger of infection, I walked into an inclosure where they were unloading the mules, and flung myself down on my baggage to rest whilst my supper was being cooked. We had provided ourselves with meat, fowls, and other substantial necessaries at the last town, Tepecoaquilco, as judging we should not be likely to meet with them here; but before they could be cooked, they were stolen by some of the poor wretches who were hovering about the place; a fact which was announced to me with the usual shrug of the shoulder, and with the simple ejaculation of "No parecen," They don't appear. It seemed that I was to go to bed supperless; so I composed myself to sleep, after having eaten a bit of bread, and drunk some port-wine, which with a tumbler of water I usually found it necessary to have placed beside my couch, as it was usual for me to be affected, according to the situation, either by shivering or slight fever, generally succeeded by violent drought,—and I diluted the wine according to circumstances. Something like a supper had been prepared, and being brought to me whilst half awake, I told them to put it down by me. About three o'clock in the morning, I awoke exceedingly hungry, and unfortunately discovered that my supper had suffered a "no parece;" the pigs, with which the yard was full, had eaten it for me. I was again awoke by something sniffing at me, and a loud snort in my ear: it was one of the mules which, as I rose, turned sharply round, and nearly planted both her hind feet on my face, as she galloped off, leaving us each equally astonished at our mutual discovery.

The Indians of this village, who are called Pintos, are not peculiar to it alone: they are found in many other parts of Mexico, and I had frequently seen them in the capital.

The population of Istola might amount to about 1000 souls. There is only one place of worship, hardly large enough to accommodate the congregation, but there are the remains of a church, which was, once, a handsome and convenient structure. It was not likely to be repaired, as the mission was very poor, and they could hardly find a priest who could come to say mass, even once a fortnight.

Tuesday, 26th. Set off before daylight. We passed through a large wood, and missed our road, having mistaken for it a track round the side of some deep ravines, leading to a watering place for cattle. This detour mortified us, as we lost the tage of our early start, for we had gone a league out of the road: we however reached Zopilote at midday.

Zopilote is the name of a vulture: we saw about 2000 of these dull birds sitting on the trees, as a sort of advanced guard of the place which so properly bears their designation, since they were the only living things that were to be seen in it: like other watchmen, they were, for the most part, fast asleep. The doors of the two small houses of which the place consisted were closed, denoting that the inhabitants were also enjoying their siesta: we went on to take ours at Zumpango, a tolerably good looking Indian town, where we met with a kind reception and a clean floor, in a house very similar to an English barn; it being situated in a farm-yard, well supplied with stock of all kinds: the water too was particularly fresh and excellent. Two leagues before we reached this place I met the extraordinario, or courier, who had been dispatched to Acapulco, previously to my leaving Mexico, to inform Captain Brown of my intended departure for the coast. I was told that, up to seven o'clock on Sunday night, there was no appearance of the Tartar from San Blas; and being now so near my journey's end, I felt secure and happy as to the certainty of my being able to avail myself of that frigate for my conveyance to Guatemala.